A Few Loose Ends

As the big picture of reality becomes increasingly elusive, the insights of those who focus on the little picture merit new appreciation.
Exhibitionist Tornado

ARE cosmologists right to worry that 90 percent of the matter their theories say should exist in the universe cannot be found? Is it possible, as some measurements imply, that the universe as a whole is younger than some of its component parts? Is there in fact only one universe, or does there exist a variegated "multiverse"? What about "wormholes" -- those theorized modes of time travel? If they're for real, then why hasn't the future already come back to haunt us? (Or has it?)

The discomfiting unanswered questions of recent years continue: Can it truly be possible that there are "damp patches" on the sun, as the latest data indicate -- and should this affect whether we blame the heat or the humidity? Is global warming yet a palpable phenomenon? If so, is it due mostly to fossil fuels or, as provocative studies suggest, to the methane produced by termites and cattle? Did language develop in human beings in a single location, such as Africa, and then diffuse outward, or did it develop in several places independently, such as the Great Rift valley, the Anatolian plateau, and Brooklyn?

Science was not like this when I was young. As a practical matter, the world still seemed mostly Newtonian (in some ways even Ptolemaic), and although Einstein's theory of relativity could be a little daunting, at least it turned out to have a number of everyday applications (the atomic bomb, The Twilight Zone). Today every important new development in science causes the ground to shift, making ordinary people want to hold on to something solid, if there is any such thing left. The earth's core used to be something you could count on; but seismologists now say that the core is rotating separately from and faster than the rest of the planet. Meanwhile, scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology have announced the results of new experiments demonstrating that it is indeed possible for an atom to be in two different places at the same time.

My own informal survey suggests that scientific studies nowadays are barred from publication in reputable journals unless the peer-review committee is satisfied that press reports about them will have to include the phrase "calls into question long-accepted theories about . . ." Exceptions are made only in the case of findings that bolster the most disturbing and outlandish claims of quantum mechanics, when the press may depict scientists as "breathing a huge sigh of relief."

In this uncertain world I cling to the work of Marilyn vos Savant, the author of the "Ask Marilyn" feature in Parade magazine. Vos Savant, who is described in the small print at the end of every column as being "listed in the 'Guinness Book of World Records' Hall of Fame for 'Highest IQ,'" answers questions from readers every week about science, mathematics, and diverse aspects of the human condition. What do you consider the most practical invention of all time? "Writing." Please define time without speaking of the measure of it by man. "Time is the distance between the beginning of a state and the end of it." What is 'bad luck'? "What we call 'bad luck'. . . may indeed be unpredictable and without purpose, but we probably have more control over it than we realize." Why can't wind be seen? "Wind is merely air in motion, and air is a mixture of gases whose particles are so small that they cannot be seen by the unaided eye." With a confidence and a clarity that may transcend the confining thrall of strict accuracy, Vos Savant considers the world as it can be apprehended by our limited ken. Her aim is to establish tenuous beachheads of certainty on the formidable Tarawa of the unknown.

She is not alone. However mystified scientists may remain about all the most significant questions, scores if not hundreds of researchers bent on exploring the familiar have in recent years managed to tie up many loose ends. In recognition of the work of Marilyn vos Savant and others, I propose the creation of an award celebrating the distinguished exegesis of the mundane -- to be known, perhaps, as the Savant. And I have a few suggestions for an inaugural group of recipients.

 

. . .

 

A first Savant, in a field perhaps to be called psychodietetics, might go to Professor Susan Basow and her student Diane Kobrynowicz, of Lafayette College, in Easton, Pennsylvania. Basow and Kobrynowicz set out to test whether, as the unverified claims of folk wisdom would have it, women who eat sparingly are deemed more attractive than women who eat with Rabelaisian disregard. In a controlled experiment a student actress from a nearby college was filmed eating four different lunches, ranging from light to heavy; four groups of male and female volunteers were each shown one of the four films and asked to evaluate the lunch eater on various criteria of femininity and social appeal. The most modest lunch consumed was "a small tossed salad with diet Italian dressing and a glass of seltzer." The most substantial lunch was "a large meatball parmesan sandwich . . . accompanied by six mozzarella sticks, large fries, a large soda, and chocolate cake." The Basow and Kobrynowicz study found that the student actress was deemed considerably more appealing by the volunteers who watched her eating the smallest lunch than by the ones who watched her eating the largest. This specific issue, most of us would concede, can now be regarded as settled.

Presented by

Cullen Murphy

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

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